In the shade of a pair of ironwood trees on a long abandoned farmer’s lot, Herman Myrie shoulders his Benjamin .22 caliber air rifle and fires into the foliage.
There’s a hiss of air and then a “plop” as the bullet hits its target high in the tree above.
“That’s a head shot,” he announces, matter of factly. He takes another shot, just to be sure, and hits the target again.
It takes a few moments for the inert green iguana to dislodge from its perch and come crashing through the lower branches, landing in a puff of dust in the dirt at our feet.
He drops the body into a bucket with five or six others, a tangled mess of claws, tails and blotchy lizard skin. It’s not exactly pleasant, but amid an unprecedented explosion of the green iguana population that threatens to do lasting damage to Grand Cayman’s ecosystem, it is important and necessary work.
Retired fire department worker and trained marksman Mr. Myrie and his assistants Hank Bodden and Menard Myles are among 18 crews licensed, in a week-long trial, to find and kill as many of the invasive lizards as they can, for a $5-a-head bounty.
In a morning’s work, they have cleared 90 green iguanas from a three-quarter-acre lot that used to be home to grazing cows and pigs. Amid the abandoned pens, the tufts of rosemary and maiden plum bushes and in the branches of the ironwood, mango and tamarind trees, the iguanas are thriving.
As quickly as he culls, the trees and bushes are repopulated. Mr. Myrie has returned, day after day, to the same lot, and found abundant new prey every time.
There are an estimated 500,000 green iguanas in Grand Cayman. Unchecked, numbers could reach 2 million within three years.
At the Department of Environment’s headquarters on North Sound Road, Fred Burton, who is directing the eradication efforts, presides over the daily count as hunters return from the field.
It’s a grim scene as rubber-gloved environment officers heap wheelbarrows of dead iguanas into a large trash bin.
It’s not a job that any environmentalist relishes, but as Mr. Burton analyses the numbers, his real concern is that the pile of dead iguanas, which will be disposed of at the George Town Landfill, is not big enough.
Over the seven-day trial, 14,409 iguanas were culled, a rate of more than 2,000 a day.
It’s an impressive count, but he calculates cullers would need to maintain that kind of effort for at least a year in order to keep pace with the rate of reproduction and make a meaningful impact on numbers.
Some of the cullers use snares, others hunt with dogs, but by far the most common and effective way is to use air rifles.
Among the most successful cullers is Cayman Islands Sport Shooting Association President Eddie McLean. The head of the gun club is pulling in more than 500 iguanas a day. He already runs a business, McLean’s Culling Services, offering his skills to private land owners, a niche ripe for expansion as farmers and condo stratas seek to rid their properties of the reptilian pests.
Mr. McLean believes government and private landowners will have to come together to finance a more sustained effort.
“I think a team of experienced cullers needs to be contracted full time. You can’t do it just some of the time and expect to get results. It has to be full-time and it has to be consistent,” he said.
Quite how that would be implemented and financed is still to be determined, but the alternative of doing nothing as the population continues to explode, for Mr. Burton, is too devastating to contemplate.
“We would be talking about massive ecosystem change. They would colonize all the remaining forests of East End, they would wipe out a large part of the red birch population and other trees too, you would see a massive impact on wildlife that depends on those trees.”
Farmers and backyard growers are already seeing the consequences. Mr. Myrie and Mr. Myles both have fruit trees and vegetable plots that they say provide more food to the iguanas than they do to their families.
“I couldn’t save a melon or a pumpkin,” says Mr. Myles.
Not everyone is going to like it, they acknowledge.
“Some people have a feeling towards things being killed, but I don’t think anyone should think of cruelty right now unless you have them as a pet,” said Mr. Myrie.
“Nobody can actually grow anything about the place. They eat the plants, the mango trees, they eat the blossom, they destroy everything. These fellas we are trying to take out in here, this is just one part of it.”
As a marksman, Mr. Myrie is calm and methodical. Dressed in full camouflage, he moves from target to target as his spotters point out the iguanas, dropping each one with a precise shot on a cent-sized target at the back of the head.
The rifle’s report is not a signal, as you might expect, for the other iguanas to run for cover. The response is more subtle; changing color to blend more closely with the rust-colored bark, rotating slowly around the branches, shifting position, imperceptibly, out of the rifle’s scope.
It takes a trained eye to pick them out. Hank Bodden climbs amid the lower branches of the trees and scrambles through the rocky undergrowth to retrieve the dead iguanas and spot new prey. In a thicket of logwood and wild strawberry bushes, he sees another iguana, some 150 yards away.
Mr. Myrie raises his rifle again, lines up the red target dot with the prey, releases the safety catch and pulls the trigger. One more down. Hundreds of thousands more to go.